Well, we get our 1 vs 8 after all.
When these two teams met earlier in the season, both were in very different places. Austin Peay had started conference play 1-3, while Belmont was the dominant 4-0 team we all expected to see. Nothing changed that day, as the Bruins jumped out to a 14-point lead in the opening 10 minutes, and never looked back in an 18-point win.
But things have changed since then. By virtue of playing ‘must-win’ games in the final week of the season, Austin Peay is on a four-game win streak, including last night’s improbable comeback against Tennessee State. Belmont? They started conference play 8-0, but split their final eight games of the season. The culprit? Their defense: the Bruins gave up more than 85 points in three of those four losses.
Sure, Austin Peay is playing their third game in three days, and Belmont has had five days off. But the Governors didn’t fade in the final ten minutes last night, when their legs would have been tired.
For the third straight game, the list of people picking Austin Peay are probably located in and around Clarksville.
…I don’t think the Governors care who’s picking them. Chris Horton has said after both games they’re just looking to prove they belong.
They’ve already done that. Now, they have a chance to prove their might, against the program that’s all but taken over the league in just four short seasons.
On the season, Austin Peay has struggled to defend against the three, but that hasn’t been the case in the tournament. The Governors have allowed just six combined three-pointers in two games, although defending Belmont’s guards is a far cry from defending Tennessee State’s.
The Governors defense has been on of the better defenses at forcing turnovers this season, and that presents an interesting opportunity against Belmont. We’re used to seeing Rick Byrd‘s team fling the ball around the court with the grace of a gazelle, but that hasn’t always been the case this season. The Bruins are ninth in turnover percentage in league play, so Austin Peay will need to maximize their opportunities to get steals and deflections on defense.
By his standards, Chris Horton didn’t have a great game last night, but he made some timely second half buckets, and pulled down big rebounds down the stretch. Horton only scored 19 points in these teams first meeting — that number will almost certainly need to be higher for the Governors to keep pace with the Bruins.
This game may come down as much to Austin Peay’s offense as their defense. Belmont’s going to score over even the best of defensive efforts, and while you can mitigate the damage, you’re know you’re going to need to keep pace. Jared Savage has been spectacular in his two games in Nashville, and Josh Robinson had a great game last night, following an off night in the lopsided win over Tennessee Tech. Those two, along with Khalil Davis, will be key guys if the Governors want to pull off their biggest upset yet.
I’m guessing in the days leading up to last night, Belmont hadn’t prepared for Austin Peay on the same level as, say, Tennessee Tech or Tennessee State. No one expected the Governors to be here, and while some are saying the Bruins got a “gift,” Austin Peay does present some interesting matchups.
Oddly enough, despite Horton, Austin Peay has struggled defending the interior, which sounds like good news for the OVC Player of the Year Evan Bradds. But Bradds was held to just two points in the earlier meeting this season, despite playing 30 minutes and the lopsided score…and Belmont still won in a blowout.
Defensively is where the battles could get interesting. Bradds is a great defender, but you don’t want him getting into foul trouble against Horton, either. Bradds has fouled out of two of the last four games.
Belmont is a significant favorite heading into this, but Tennessee Tech and TSU were favored as well over the Governors. The Bruins have struggled, at times, to close out games, and Austin Peay has showed they’re a team that can. Anyone that’s watched any of this tournament should know not to take any team lightly, (Since the eight seed is still alive in both the men’s and women’s brackets) and the Bruins will need to play focused to head back to the Finals.
…And I haven’t even mentioned Craig Bradshaw yet. If he goes off, it could be lights out for any team.